The Golden Age of Islam: Glimpses of Scientific Discovery and Invention (Khwarazm – Baghdad – Kufa)

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This article gives glimpses of scientific discoveries and inventions by scientists in Khwarazm, Baghdad and Kufa; during the Golden Age of Islam.

The Birth of Algebra in Khwarazm

Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (c. 780-850), also known as The Father of Algebra, was mathematician, astronomer and geographer. He was a scholar of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad; he introduced the basics of Algebra and Algorithm still used to this day. He explained the use of zero, a numeral of fundamental importance developed by the Arabs, and he developed the decimal system.

His development of astronomical tables was a significant contribution to astronomy. Likewise, his contribution to geography is also outstanding, in that, not only did he revise Ptolemy's views on geography, but also corrected them in detail. His other contributions include original works related to clocks, sundials and astrolabes. Al‑Khwarizmi’s approach was systematic and logical; not only did he bring together the prevailing knowledge at the time on various branches of science, but he also enriched it through his original contribution.

A Science Prodigy in Khwarazm

Abu Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Biruni (973-1048), also known as Alberonius in Latin, was a polymath with an interest in various practical and scholarly fields. He was one of the first promoters of an experimental method of investigation, introducing this method into mechanics and what is nowadays known as mineralogy, psychology and astronomy.

Al-Biruni began studies at a very early age, under the famous astronomer and mathematician Abu Nasr Mansur. By the age of 17, he was engaged in serious scientific work, and by the age of 22, he was already well read as he had studied a wide selection of map projections discussing them in a treatise. It is estimated that al-Biruni wrote around 146 works with a total of about 13,000 folios; the range of his work covers essentially all the science of his time.

Practical Alchemy in Baghdad

Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan (c. 721-815) was a prominent polymath; considered the "Father of Chemistry”, he was the first practical alchemist. His major contribution in the field of chemistry, introducing experimental investigation into alchemy, and rapidly changing its character into modern chemistry.

Ibn Hayyan’s contribution of fundamental importance to chemistry includes perfection of scientific techniques such as crystalization, distillation, calcination, sublimation and evaporation, as well as development of several instruments. His major practical achievement was the discovery of minerals and other acids, which he prepared for the first time in his alembic (al-inbiq).

Ibn Hayyan also emphasized that, in chemical reactions, definite quantities of various substances are involved; thus, paving the way for the law of constant proportions. Based on their properties, he described three distinct types of substances: spirits, which are those that vaporise on heating; metals; and compounds that can be polverized. He thus made way for later classification of metals, non-metals and volatile substances.

The Banu Musa Brothers in Baghdad

Abu Ja'far Muhammad, Ahmad and al-Hassan Banu Musa (c. 803-873) were great mathematicians and translators of the Greek treatises; they invented mechanical devices and published their most renowned engineering treatise Kitab al-Hiyal (Book of Ingenious Devices).

The Banu Musa brothers were among the first group of mathematicians to carry forward the mathematical developments initiated by the ancient Greeks. Ja’far Muhammad worked mainly on geometry and astronomy, while Ahmad worked on mechanics, and al‑Hasan on geometry.

The House of Wisdom in Baghdad

Al-Ma'mun continued the patronage of learning started by his father and founded an academy called the House of Wisdom where Greek philosophical and scientific works were translated. He also built up a library of manuscripts, the first major library to be set up since that in Alexandria, collecting important works from Byzantium. In addition to the House of Wisdom, al-Ma'mun set up observatories in which Muslim astronomers could build on the knowledge acquired by earlier peoples.

An Arab Philosopher in Kufa

Abu Yusuf Ya'qub Ibn Ishaq Al-Kindi (c. 801-873), known to the West by the name Alkindus, was another Arab polymath. Born and educated in Kufa, he further pursued his studies in Baghdad becoming a prominent figure in the House of Wisdom. His contact with "the philosophy of the ancients" had a profound effect on al‑Kindi’s intellectual development, leading him to write original treatises on subjects ranging from Islamic ethics and metaphysics to mathematics and pharmacology.

Al-Kindi was a pioneer in cryptanalysis and cryptology, and devised new methods of breaking ciphers, including the frequency analysis method. Using his mathematical and medical expertise, he developed a scale to allow doctors to quantify the potency of their medication. Despite the fact that his philosophical output was largely overshadowed by that of Al-Farabi, he is still considered one of the greatest philosophers of Arab descent, and for this reason is known simply as "The Arab Philosopher".

References

Foundation for Science Technology and Civilization

1001 inventions: "Muslim Heritage in Our World" Book

wikipedia.org

plato.stanford.edu

britannica.com

hps.cam.ac.uk

ibnalhaytham.net

ummah.net

groups.dcs.st-and.ac.uk

history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk


Top Image: Islamic Scientists 1988 علماء المسلمين | Islamic Civilization Museum in Sharjah, UAE | mahmoudhammad.com


This article was first published in print in the PSC Newsletter, 2nd School Semester 2010/2011.

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